MATCH REPORT: The Changing of the Guard

Last gasp equaliser at Church Road

Today marked an historic competitive fixture for Sutton Common Rovers. For the first time in the club’s history (barring a couple of suspensions!) Darren Salmon was not at the helm, managing the side he and his family nurtured from their humble beginnings back in 1978. I’m sure everyone associated with the club can look back fondly, and recall matches, players and results that will live long in their memory, and we thank Darren for that. Equally, looking forward, each one us will also wish Sam Morgan all the best, as the club enters its new era.

Our visitors today, Burgess Hill Town, finished 16th in the Isthmian League South East, and reached the Second Qualifying Round in this competition last season, losing out to Met Police, who Rovers will face at least twice this season. Their travelling supporters are testament to the popularity of the club, and made their presence felt at Church Road, adding to the pressure on Rovers to find a result.

Today’s line-up includes James Dillon, with Danny Divine, Matt Tanton, Antonio Simeone and Bertie Lloyd as a back four. Then Max Oldham, Courtney Swaby and Nabeel Ghannam, with debut starts for Ben Holden, Charlie Martin and Aaron Jenkins. On the bench, Siao Blackwood, Conan Torpey, Gideon Acheampong, Isy Nzelo, Noah Africa, Gabriel Odunaike and Louie Eritikristos.

With the clouds looming over Church Road and the rain dropping in sheets, Burgess Hill get the game underway, kicking-off toward the main stand. Within the first couple of minutes a harsh tackle by Reece Hallard on Matt Tanton wins a free kick, setting the tone for the desire to win every ball. Terrific anticipation from Courtney Swaby, intercepting a poor Burgess back-pass, sets him through one on one with keeper Taylor Seymour, but just unable to make it count. From the resulting corner Swaby delivered short to Danny Divine, whose headed flick-on found Charlie Martin, unfortunately Martin’s shot was uncharacteristically off-target. From the goal kick the ball is lofted over our defence, forcing James Dillon to head clear for a corner. Antonio Simeone confidently defends the corner-kick, dispelling any danger.

A neat interchange between Swaby and Martin results in a foul to Rovers on the left flank. From the kick Martin and Swaby again link up, the ball passed out to Nabeel Ghannam, whose shot was gathered by the keeper Seymour. On 17mins Ghannam wins a free kick about 20yrds out, which Swaby curls to the right hand corner, the keeper nowhere near it, but just wide of the upright. Two opportunities to take the lead. Moments later a great interception by Ben Holden, outside our own 18yrd box, gives him the opportunity to press forward, his through-ball finding Aaron Jenkins, who has the chance to open our account, but was judged offside

Rovers had enjoyed the majority of possession in the opening 20mins, and didn’t look troubled by any threat by Burgess Hill. Then the moment came that changed all that. An innocuous ball looked like it was going out for either a Rovers’ throw or a goal kick, but, in a cruel twist, the ball (moving at pace) struck the corner flag-post and rebounded back into play, by some distance, toward the penalty area. The Burgess Hill number 9 Reece Hallard reacted first and capitalised on their fortune, whipping a superb cross into the danger zone, finding Rob O’Toole whose glancing header evaded the back-pedalling Dillon. 1-0 down, against the run of play, after 25mins.

With Rovers now in a state of shock and frustration, Burgess Hill take the upper hand and dominate possession for what seemed like a long spell, forcing Dillon into a number of saves to keep our hope alive. Close to half time Ghannam spotted the Burgess keeper off his line, and from just inside the Burgess half attempted an audacious lob, but was just wide of the left post. As it is, we go into the break ruing the chances missed in the first half.

If the rain in the first half was torrential, in the second it was biblical! Gradually picking themselves up Rovers carve out two opportunities in an effort to reduce the deficit. Right from the restart, Bertie Lloyd’s cross field pass to Antonio Simeone, gives Simeone room to send the ball in-behind for Aaron Jenkins, but his shot was smothered by keeper Seymour. B.Holden then feeds another through-ball to Max Oldham, passing it inside to Ghannam, whose strike from distance hits the post.

In the driving rain, the game became a little fractious with a number of confrontations, resulting in cautions for both sides. On the hour, Dillon is again brought into the action. After threatening build-up by Marcel Powell and O’Toole, Dillon pulled off a terrific reaction save from Hallard, turning the ball over the bar with an outstretched foot.

Two substitutions for Rovers, in the hope that fresh legs would turn our fortune. Jenkins replaced by Conan Torpey, and B.Holden by debutant Noah Africa. In the pouring rain, with a name like Noah, maybe it’s time for the tide to turn?

Lloyd, now playing further upfield in an effort to press Burgess, sends Max Oldham down the right side, but his cross was unable to beat Seymour. Tanton picked up a yellow for a mis-timed sliding tackle on Reggie Ward, but was on hand to head away the free kick.

With the clock running over 90minutes, a poor challenge on Torpey gives Rovers a free kick on the right flank, a yard or two from the touchline. Swaby delivers the free kick to the far post, over the outstretched arm of goalkeeper Seymour, Lloyd heads the ball down across the face of the goal finding Oldham who has two shots blocked on the line. The second shot deflects off the chest of Divine, falling into the path of Martin, who slams the ball home for the equaliser. Virtually the last kick of the game.

So, an evenly matched game, for the most part, with both sides having the chance to win the tie. Rovers missing theirs, and James Dillon denying Burgess Hill. Now we all head off to West Sussex on Tuesday night for the rematch. Hope it’s a bit drier!